In love and marriage, there are certain behaviors, tendencies, and traits which, if left unchecked, can either pave the way for either the success or failure of the relationship. For example, patience, love, loyalty, fun, and friendliness can all contribute to the longevity and health of a marriage. On the other hand, one of the top contenders when it comes to ushering in the downfall of a relationship is…drumroll please…anxiety. 3.1% of the population has been formally diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and many more remain undiagnosed.
Unfortunately, people who suffer from anxiety are less likely to have to stay in healthy intimate relationships than those who do not. They are twice more likely than others to run into challenges like frequent arguments, intimacy or communication problems, and social withdrawal.
There are a number of ways anxiety can have a detrimental effect on marriage, but there’s also a lot you can do about it. Below, we outline how anxiety can negatively affect a marriage + what can be done to combat anxiety or mitigate issues that it may bring about.
Anxiety can make you blind to you and your partner’s real needs
When you feel anxious, your mind is not clear, which means that you may not be aware of what your real needs are. For example, perhaps you’re rushing to finish cleaning the kitchen before guests come over, and you’re feeling anxious about it. Your partner tries to help you, but you constantly snap at them about how they’re doing it wrong, putting things in the wrong places, or using the wrong sponge on the wrong surface. You may think your need is for them to do it in a particular way, but perhaps your actual need is for space and control in navigating this time-sensitive task. In other words, perhaps you’d prefer to simply do it alone, the way you want, efficiently–but your anxiety keeps you from slowing down enough to discover what you really need. At the same time, it negatively affects your partner and your relationship.
This was a pretty low-stakes example, but when you miss the mark on your own needs over and over, you keep yourself locked in the cycle of anxiety because not meeting your true needs fuels more anxiety. This cycle does a disservice to you and your relationship alike.
Alternatively, perpetual anxiety can also make you overreact to the little things but neglect the bigger things in life. It’s kind of like not seeing the forest through the trees: If you see life as a series of acute hazards that must be navigated, your energy goes into constantly reacting to and guarding yourself against them. People only have a finite amount of energy. If your energy is going towards anxiously reacting to perceived risks, it becomes more difficult to exert energy on bigger-picture, longer-term goals and self-care practices that could actually help to decrease anxiety.
In addition to keeping you from meeting your own needs, anxiety can keep you from being in tune with your partner’s needs. It’s not borne out of selfishness, though–far from it. You care deeply for your partner, their well-being, and their inner world. However, because your anxiety demands so much attention and urgency, you might not always have the capacity to be present with your partner and their needs. Marriage and family therapist Kristine Tye put it best when she said, “If you’re worried about what could be happening, it’s difficult to pay attention to what is happening.”
Anxiety leads to decreases in trust
A common feature of anxiety is paranoia. An anxious person may not trust their partner and may suspect that they are cheating, that they don’t really love them, or that they’re otherwise engaging in dishonest behavior. Repeated unwarranted accusations slowly chip away at both trust and morale in the relationship.
Anxiety can lead you to selfish behavior
First, let’s clarify what’s meant by this. Again, it does not mean that an anxiety sufferer is a selfish person. In many cases, it’s quite the opposite–the person with anxiety cares too much about others and tends to overthink. However, it does mean that some of their actions are selfish. This is because anxiety causes people to hyper-focus on their own problems and concerns, leaving less energy available for others.
Anxiety can also lead to selfish behavior because a preoccupation with protecting oneself or even the relationship can lead one to behave in a way that isn’t compassionate or vulnerable. Vulnerability is important in a relationship, but it’s hard to be vulnerable when you’re too busy protecting yourself.
Anxiety is contagious
Having an excessive amount of worries and concerns can also put pressure on a relationship. Being around a person with many worries can be stressful. Anxiety is contagious; although your partner’s emotions are their responsibility, it is understandably difficult not to let someone else’s anxieties rile you up sometimes as well.
Anxiety can lead to financial dependency
A spouse who is very anxious may have difficulty finding and keeping jobs that don’t trigger their anxiety too much. They may also need to take time off work if their anxiety becomes very severe. As a result, the other spouse becomes the sole breadwinner or the person bringing in most of the income, as well as providing emotional support to the anxious spouse. The anxious partner is then financially dependent on the other, although they may not be contributing much to the household in other ways due to their anxiety.
Anxious-preoccupied attachment style can push one’s partner away
Most people are predisposed to one of four attachment styles in romantic relationships. About half the population has a secure attachment style, and everyone else falls into one of the three insecure attachment styles.
One of these is known as the anxious-preoccupied attachment style. It describes someone who experiences a deep and consuming fear of abandonment, who seeks frequent reassurance from their partner (sometimes to the point of excess), and who is usually the one desiring more closeness and emotional intimacy than the other.
Unfortunately, their constant need for attention and affection can have exactly the effect they want to avoid: it can push their partner away. Even a partner who is patient and able to provide lots of reassurance at first will often grow tired of frequently repeated or escalating bids for reassurance. Allowing this attachment style to go unchecked and dominate the dynamic between partners can, unfortunately, bring about the downfall of a relationship.
How to work with anxiety and stop it from ruining a marriage
As you can see, anxiety can wreak havoc on a relationship. However, it doesn’t have to. One partner simply having anxiety does not mean the relationship is doomed to fail, but it does mean that both partners need to pay careful attention to the negative effect (if any) anxiety is having on the relationship and take steps to curtail its sphere of influence. There are a number of tools and resources available that can help a couple to deal with anxiety and keep it in check. Here are some of the most powerful ways for both partners to do so.
Tools for the anxious spouse
Get therapy. Therapy can help an anxious spouse with everything ranging from working to transform an anxious-preoccupied attachment style and disengaging from paranoid thoughts to taking things less personally. Therapy can be done individually, though some people prefer to go to couples therapy instead.
Reframe anxiety during moments of tension. Practice paying attention to your needs instead of your fears. If you feel the spark of fearfulness or defensiveness arising in an interaction with your partner, don’t lash out. Instead, step back for a moment. Call to mind the love and compassion you have both for yourself and your partner. From there, instead of reacting hastily, ask clearly for what you need in order to feel supported, loved, and understood.
Meditate and practice mindfulness. Did you read the last point, snort, and think, ‘HA yeah, easier said than done!’? That is totally understandable because stepping back in a moment of anxiety requires herculean strength and is not as simple as it sounds. It requires immense willpower and deliberate training. Regular meditation and mindfulness practices have been shown thousands of times over to lead to decreases in anxiety and greater control over one’s reactions. In fact, mindfulness is also your secret weapon against conflict escalation. Check out this free 8-week online mindfulness-based stress reduction course, which consists of a set of techniques that have changed the lives of innumerable people.
Remember that the goal is not to eliminate anxiety but to manage it. For some people, anxiety is just a part of their makeup. If that’s you, don’t despair. That might just be a part of your life, just like other people deal with other challenges. The key isn’t to squash down your anxiety so much that it somehow magically extinguishes itself (unlikely and unrealistic) but to learn how to work with it so that it doesn’t rule your life. With practice, it can eventually be something that is a part of your experience but which doesn’t usually dominate your experience.
Tools for the other spouse
Set limits. It’s also important for the partner of an anxious spouse to set limits–respectfully, of course. It is not healthy to indulge in every anxiety-fueled whim or to organize a household around one person’s anxiety. For example, someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (closely linked to anxiety disorders) might ask that the house be organized in a particular way which may seem arbitrary. Such requests should not be entertained because it is not healthy for one person’s anxiety to direct how household tasks are managed.
Take time for yourself. Make sure you have hobbies and routines that you engage in by yourself, such as an exercise regimen or weekly get-togethers with friends. If you’re around your partner’s anxiety too frequently, it can take a major toll on your emotional health, too. Cultivate your own life, habits, and interests in order to take care of yourself and gain distance from your partner’s anxiety.
If you’ve read to the end, we hope you’ve learned at least one thing you can take forward and use to improve your relationship. With so many people affected by anxiety disorders, anxiety is a common challenge to have to confront in a marriage. It’s not insurmountable, and there is a lot of growth to be had through the process of dancing with anxiety and learning how to manage it effectively.
Nicole Sheehey is the Head of Legal Content at HelloPrenup, and an Illinois licensed attorney. She has a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to prenuptial agreements. Nicole has Juris Doctor from John Marshall Law School. She has a deep understanding of the legal and financial implications of prenuptial agreements, and enjoys writing and collaborating with other attorneys on the nuances of the law. Nicole is passionate about helping couples locate the information they need when it comes to prenuptial agreements. You can reach Nicole here: [email protected]